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This 'X' rates excitement
Stars of 'X-Men' film are hyped, happy, as comic heroes
NEW YORK (CNN) -- For Hugh Jackman, a recent excursion to giant F.A.O. Schwarz was an otherworldly experience, at best.
"There was a whole display set up of all the X-Men paraphernalia," recalls the Australian actor, who plays the self-healing mutant Wolverine in the highly anticipated sci-fi flick, which opens nationwide on Friday.
"My wife couldn't quite resist telling this 5-year-old boy that I was Wolverine. The little kid looked up at me and he was staring at me. His father was kind of batting him away, saying, 'You're Wolverine! So tell me about it! When's the movie coming out? This is great. I've been waiting -- I mean, my son's been waiting for so long!'
"So I kind of was focusing on the kid and I said, 'So you watch X-Men?' He goes, 'Yeah,' I said, 'Who's your favorite character?'
The child's response? Cyclops.
That tale elicits a pleased laugh from James Marsden, the relatively unknown young actor playing Cyclops, the mutant whose eyes can burn holes in anything. One day, he's starring in this year's teen dud, "Gossip." Seemingly overnight, he -- and the rest of his fellow X-Men -- have their own action figures.
Shades of "Star Wars" fan mania? Marsden, who went to a Toys 'R' Us and bought a plastic likeness of himself in all its eye-blazing splendor, hopes so.
"That's kind of part of the fun, to go buy your own action figure," he says. "The scary thing is that nowadays, they really resemble you."
Since its 1963 debut as a Marvel Comic, the "X-Men" has garnered an almost single-mindedly devoted following. According to Marvel, the series is the most popular comic book franchise of all time. Like "Superman" and "Batman," two other characters who leapt off pulp pages to the screen, it was only a matter of time until the mutants went to the movies.
The responsibility for translating "X-Men" to the big screen lay with Bryan Singer, who directed critical favorites "The Usual Suspects" (1995) and "Apt Pupil" (1998).
Singer tapped Patrick Stewart to play Professor Xavier, a telepathic mutant who runs a school for gifted kids. Halle Berry portrays Storm, a mutant who can manipulate weather; Anna Paquin's Rogue character absorbs the power of anyone she touches; Famke Janssen's Jean Grey is telepathic.
Stewart, already renowned for his "Star Trek" work, says he was hesitant about playing yet another fearless leader.
"I had a concern, yeah," he says. "Right at the beginning, it felt like a lot of baggage. But ... I didn't feel as though as I was in a comic-book movie. I was in a modern movie with a serious theme. And it was so separate in the tone and quality from 'Next Generation' (the second "Star Trek" TV series) that I didn't have any conflict at all."
Of course, any action flick worth its special-effects wizardry has to have a worthy villain. "X-Men" has Magneto (Ian McKellen), one of the most powerful mutants around. His sidekicks include the eerily creepy Sabretooth (wrestler Tyler Mane) and the shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos).
A model, Romijn-Stamos says she's ready to show her wicked side.
"I was just so excited that they wanted me to play a bad guy first of all, but also the only female villain in the movie," she says. "And this movie is really the first movie with so many female superheroes that are just as important as the male superheroes."
Down to the wire
Excitement aside, this "X-Men" had a troubled journey to the nation's theaters. Director Singer barely completed the film in time for its Friday release date, prompting Fox, the studio distributing the movie, to cancel a June press junket to promote "X-Men." Just weeks before its release date, Singer was still putting the finishing touches on his big-budget baby.
Singer got involved in the project six years ago, and has since read old comics and watched all 70 episodes of the "X-Men" animated series. Singer started casting the film back in the spring of 1999, but the lineup wasn't complete until October -- after shooting had already started.
Mane joined first, agreeing to play Sabretooth. Stewart -- the first choice to play the wise and benevolent professor -- soon followed. When Jackman signed on to play Wolverine (the first choice, Dougray Scott, had to drop out because he was in the filming of "Mission: Impossible 2) the list was complete.
For Jackman, one actor's loss was very much another one's gain.
"When you're playing an icon like Wolverine, it's sometimes better to be someone that nobody knows because they don't know what to expect," Jackman says. "I don't mind a little bit of anonymity; it helps on the subway."
It helped to have stamina, too. Romijn-Stamos' elaborate blue cosmetic coating took eight hours daily to apply, and two additional hours to remove. The blue skin tone, she says, lingered for months. And Jackman says he has numerous scars from the enormous -- and sharp -- claws he sported as Wolverine.
Now, with the film poised to debut, the buzz over "X-Men" has spread from one coast to the other. Case in point: Crowds are camping out in front of Los Angeles theaters to get tickets on opening night.
This "X-Men" ecstasy can only bode super things for Marvel, which is eyeing film productions next fall for some of its other heroes. Watch for Spiderman, Captain America and Ghost Rider, fighting evil and coming to a theater near you.
X-MEN the movie
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